Climate Defiance vs US Department of Energy at The Atlantic Festival 2023
Nov 2, 2023
A few weeks ago I was invited to attend The Atlantic Festival (#TAF2023), one of the sessions included Nancy Cordes, of CBS News, interviewing Carla Frisch, the Acting Executive Director of Policy at the U.S. Department of Energy. A few questions in, a woman sitting a row ahead of me stood up and yelled "Will you call on President Biden to stop the Venture Global CP2 Liquid Natural Gas Pipeline!?" referring to the pipeline project which is currently submitted for approval. As Carla attempts to address the question, obviously unable to give a simple yes or no, the yelling continues. Nancy, as well as some members of the audience, attempted to quell the budding protest, but before they got very far another woman seated to my left stood up and joined in the protest.
The protesters, who I later discovered were a part of Climate Defiance, had several plants in the audience who, one by one joined in the protest until the security folks with The Atlantic decided to take Carla and Nancy off the dais. As they were escorted out, a handful of other protesters joined them. Rather than give you a complete written play by play you can watch the protest here. As an elder millennial I wasn't as quick with my phone as some of my younger contemporaries so it starts a few seconds in. That said, I couldn't find any other footage of this posted anywhere, so you get what you get.
I share all of this, not because it is news per se, but because I feel a connection to both sides of this argument. In fact I recently published an article about the fact that our continued societal development of fossil fuel infrastructure is kind of like a trust fund kid who's going broke, and chooses to throw a final rager rather than buckle down and make the most of tomorrow. I didn't have much awareness of the LNGP in question, and reading up on it has me even more torn.
For the Protesters
Thousands of the worlds foremost scientists and authorities on the intersection of climate change and fossil fuel use agree that even if we had stopped producing new fossil fuel infrastructure years ago, simply continuing to use the infrastructure we have currently will put us well over the 1.5°C tipping point. Which is... to make a long story short, highly indicative of humanity having a bad time. So I completely understand why the protestors are outraged even by the prospect of continued fossil fuel infrastructure development.
Especially because, as you may have noticed in the video, the majority of the protesters are on the younger side of the adult bell curve. Grown enough to see the danger coming, and too young and disenfranchised to feel as if they have any true power or authority to stop it. I'd be infuriated as well. Actually, I am infuriated about it, I just express my anger in a different way. Were I their age, I too would probably feel like protests would be one of my only outlets. As someone who isn't them, I'm glad they elected for nonviolent protest. When they first stood up, the whole crowd paused, wondering what form this act of defiance might take.
Later, in the same event, Michael Mann poignantly highlighted some of the various ways younger concerned citizens can get involved and make a noticeable impact concerning climate change. The most notable was the recent victory awarded to the children represented by Our Children's Trust, in Montana, who sued the state for continued investment in fossil fuels when their state constitution includes language that promises them a clean and healthful climate. These kind of legal battles are where the future of our planet will be won or lost. While protests provide far more instant gratification and, perhaps, emotional satisfaction, if they aren't paired with meaningful legislative action they'll ultimately be little more than a flash in the pan.
For the Atlantic Festival
I give Carla, Nancy, and the Atlantic Festival organizers and security a lot of credit. Carla attempted to answer the questions beneath the protestors initial demands. If you pay attention in the video, you can hear Carla bring up some incredibly important, and valid, points that make the decision about this pipeline a far more nuanced proposition than the black and white situation the protesters made it out to be. She was, eventually, yelled down, but she wasn't dismissive of their concerns, and was patient and articulate in attempting to provide a response.
And before I dive into the pipeline situation specifically, I also thought the Atlantic Festival Security contractor did a phenomenal job. They made their presence known, and once it was clear the protest was to be nonviolent, they tried to let the protesters have a say. They only escalated things when it became clear the protesters weren't interested in conversation, and likely out of regard for the safety of both Nancy and Carla, escorted them out of the venue. If security had just started hauling people away, the situation would have almost certainly boiled over. Towards the end of the event, one of the Atlantic's executive team took the stage to share a statement that they believed in the right of the protesters, so long as it didn't meaningfully interfere with the experience of the folks who had purchased tickets. They even recommended a spot for the protesters to demonstrate for the remainder of the afternoon.
Regarding the Venture Global CP2 LNGP
At the time of this writing there is remarkably little information publicly available on the CP2 pipeline. From Carla's statements and what I have been able to read (or in some cases, briefly skim) - the logic behind the seemingly likely approval of the pipeline rides on three core tenets.
An incremental improvement in pollution. Transporting and selling this natural gas will replace higher polluting fossil fuels (like coal and oil).
The understandable counterargument here is that this natural gas will simply be an "in addition to" as opposed to "instead of".
The income from the sale of this natural gas will provide funding to accelerate the transition to more sustainable energy production.
The counterclaim here being the longest running regarding the fossil fuel industry - how much of this money is actually going towards renewable investments?
Considering Big Western oil firms doubled profits in 2022, and yet despite these record breaking profits, US supermajor oil firms aren't doing nearly as much as their European counterparts to decarbonize. In fact, US supermajor's investments in renewables, as a share of income, is in a backslide.
The fuel from this pipeline seems to be intended to provide a reliable alternative to Russian provided fossil fuels. This would make economic sanctions easier to enforce, as several countries who are participating in said sanctions are still purchasing fuel from Russia.
Our government is far from perfect. The now two-party system on which it is built (it doesn't have to be that way) is deeply flawed and our political scene is more reality TV, less governing today than ever before. However, a large number of the people who work for the government do care about the causes they commit their time to. In this case, a number of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) agencies have reviewed this project and believe it to be an incremental improvement. The war in Ukraine is a major variable here. Without that, I personally feel like I would be on the side opposing the pipeline, as any new fossil fuel infrastructure only further depletes our planet's "trust fund" and increases the likelihood of us further damaging the planet.
However, in this case I feel there is a valid case to be made. Not building it forces leaders in other countries into a precarious decision. Hold out and suffer in the short term, or give in, and suffer in the long term? If you hold out, you may force your country to become energy independent more quickly, be it through other partners or renewable infrastructure adoption. But as fuel cost soar, so too, do food prices. There will be not only potentially heavy economic harm, but true personal suffering throughout the population. Is the long term benefit and moral high ground worth the cost of your people's suffering?
If you give in, and purchase Russian exports, it alleviates the short term suffering. Though now you're complicit in funding a war, potentially breaking solidarity with your allies, and you're most certainly furthering the climate crisis through your use of these financially cheap, though morally and environmentally costly fossil fuels.
Does It Even Matter?
One might ask if all of this is moot in the face of the additional Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emitted as a result of the war in the Ukraine. It isn't. Perhaps the only net positive effect of the war in Ukraine is that as a result of most countries pulling back from Russian fuel exports, total global emissions have dropped (mostly as a result of increased fuel prices) while 2022 adoption of renewable energy, sale of heat pumps, and electric vehicle adoption all increased over 30% from 2021. It is anticipated this trend will continue in 2023, both as general interest in global decarbonization of the energy sector continues, bolstered by further avoidance of Russian fuel exports. It seems the CP2 pipeline is meant to aid in supporting that transition without requiring allies to consider reverting to Russian fuels.
In the face of this daunting complexity, those tasked with making this decision must navigate some of the world's most intricate and emotionally charged sectors. Their choices will reverberate throughout history, far beyond our own lifetimes. It's easy to understand if they simply froze, unable to make a decision due to choice paralysis. Easier still to critique their actions from the sidelines. In the future, armchair strategists will dissect the situation and share their own solutions with the benefit of hindsight like so many do with the events of history that precede us. However, those carrying this weight in the present don't have any such luxury. They have to move forward, making the best decisions they can with the limited information they have. This is how history is made.